Family sues Pierce County Health Department over requiring school closures

Essentially every school district across the state is starting out this fall with distance learning, but Pierce County is the only county where local health officials aren’t giving schools a choice.

Now a Lakewood family is pushing back against the department with a lawsuit, hoping it’ll help get students back in the classroom-and fast.

The Cochran’s are feeling the same emotions as many parents when it comes to distance learning.

“As a mom you’re taking on a whole new role with your child which can put a strain on your relationship with your child,” said Wendy Cochran.

She and her husband acted on their frustration and filed a lawsuit against the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department following an issued requirement for all schools to start out with distance learning.

“We’re flabbergasted, we did not think that the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department had the right to do that,” said Darrell Cochran.

While many parents anticipated a school year of zoom classes, the Cochran’s, whose children attend the private school Charles Wright academy in Tacoma, didn’t see it coming.

“Our school put a lot of work and effort into ensuring the school had a lot of safety measures in place…so we were ready to pull the trigger we were ready to go to school, we had our backpacks packed,” said Wendy.

After the health department director Dr. Anthony Chen made sent out the distance-learning requirement on August 12th, the Cochran’s say their school had to unexpectedly change gears.

“It was devastating for the kids as well as us,” said Wendy.

Wendy’s husband Darrell, an attorney, filed the suit. But he says it’s not just for his family, but all families in Pierce County.

“It is such a crushing impact on the kids and particularly the moms to that now have the expectation that they’re going to be teaching the kids and handling all of the teach at home. And oh by the way, it is inarguable that they’ll be a huge percentage of kids that simply technologically cannot enjoy the benefits of remote learning and anyone who says otherwise is denying reality,” said Darrell.  

Darrell said the gist of the lawsuit is that “Every school district and every school institution should make the right to make decisions based on what they’re capable of providing within their own school operations so here we had a health department come down and say we’re going to make the decision for everyone and they cannot legally do that.”

But the Pierce County Health Department says Dr. Chen does have the authority to make that call and says he did so using the state’s guidance that only when a community’s transmission rate is 75 per 100,000 people, that then they start considering in-person learning. Around the time when Dr. Chen made the call, Pierce County’s rate was at 148.6. Today it’s 85 per 100,000, which is still higher than King and Snohomish counties. 

Tacoma Pierce County Health Department says their attorney is working on a response to the suit. Darrell Cochran says he plans to file an emergency restraining order against the department to declare it's order invalid, tomorrow, and hopes to have a hearing and a ruling by Friday.